This summer the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville will present two exhibitions exploring parallels between folk and self-taught artists of the American South. Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial includes 44 works–20 quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend and 24 paintings and assemblages by Thornton Dial–drawn primarily from Atlanta’s Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s noted collection of Southern African American art. A concurrent exhibition, Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, features 65 paintings and drawings by the renowned self-taught artist Bill Traylor. Both exhibitions will be on display in the Frist Center’s Ingram Gallery from May 25 through September 23, 2012.
Gee’s Bend, a small rural area near Selma, Alabama is known for its unique quiltmaking traditions that date to the 19th century that continue to be stewarded and expanded upon by a group of about 40 women of the community. The Gee’s Bend quilters utilize salvaged fabric to create surprising orchestrations of strong colors, dynamic patterns and eccentric geometric shapes.
“Beyond their utility, these quilts have served as a creative outlet for the women of Gee’s Bend, who strive to achieve beautiful and surprising effects while acknowledging the evocative capacity of reused materials,” says Frist Center Chief Curator Mark Scala. “Born of poverty and necessity, they have come to stand in the public imagination for the universal desire for beauty, and blur the line between craft and fine art.”
Self-taught artist Thornton Dial (born 1928) suffered economic hardship and racial oppression much like that experienced by the Gee’s Bend quilters. Dial never trained as an artist and did not think of himself as such when he began composing assemblages while working as a laborer in the industrial town of Bessemer, Alabama However, he became aware of the Gee’s Bend quilt makers in 2001 and found inspiration in their form of artistic expression. “Dial often employs quilts in his work, using them to celebrate the strong and nurturing women who raised him,” notes Mr. Scala.
Another influence on both Dial and the quilters is yard art, found-object displays in which arrangements of discarded materials serve as deeply coded visual expressions. Likewise, Dial uses discarded and leftover detritus to create his potent symbolic assemblages. “While Dial’s social symbolism contrasts with the abstraction of the Gee’s Bend quilts,” Mr. Scala continues, “the two are undeniably linked by the poetic power of raw materials, which they transform into expressions of beauty and truth.
Bill Traylor, a self-taught artist like Dial, was born into slavery around 1854. For most of his life, he worked as a field-hand on the Alabama plantation where he was born. Despite having no artistic training or education, he began drawing at age 82 and was extremely prolific, creating an estimated 1,200 works within four years. Many of his compositions were created on discarded shirt cardboard, cast-off signs, or other shaped supports whose irregular forms influenced his designs.
Traylor’s works are known for their simply-defined shapes and vibrant compositions in which memories, folk legends and observations on African American life are merged. “His subject matter usually involved events from plantation life, passersby on the street around him, and animals,” says Susan Mitchell Crawley, curator of folk art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and curator of Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. “Traylor created compositions that are neither mystical nor religious but distinctly secular, filled with powerful images that may be present, remembered or imaginary.”